In real life, road trips might be quiet or dull, but they might also be transformative, or at least fun and exciting. Iconic road-trip movies can offer some important lessons about what to do (or not to do) on the road, or just demonstrate all the possibilities of leaving home on an open-ended drive to a faraway destination. Their journey may be literal, with characters who travel from one place to another, but a truly good movie offers an emotional, spiritual, or intellectual journey, in addition to just moving its characters from Point A to Point B.
Road-trip movies have a unique opportunity to accomplish all of that, and movie characters who hit the road never do it just for the sake of going somewhere. Being on the road changes them, tests them, and in some cases actually kills them, although the best road-trip movies provide satisfying catharsis even if their journeys end up in a dark place.
Here, in chronological order, are 10 quintessential road-trip movies, along with some of the wisdom that they impart.
It Happened One Night (1934)
At a time when the idea of a road trip was still something new and evolving, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert took a trip along America’s roadways in this Oscar-winning romantic comedy, one of the last movies from Hollywood’s risqué pre-Code era. By bus and by car (sometimes as hitchhikers), Gable’s reporter Peter Warne and Colbert’s heiress Ellie Andrews bicker and banter and fall in love, stopping at the motor courts and motels that had begun sprouting up on interstate routes. The thrill of meeting someone by chance, a long way from home, and experiencing irresistible chemistry while going on a shared adventure, is one of the tantalizing prospects of setting out on the open road.
National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
Before the dysfunctional but loving Griswolds traveled to Europe, celebrated Christmas, or went to Vegas, the family, led by well-meaning but clueless dad Clark (Chevy Chase in the defining role of his career), took a road trip from their home in Illinois to the promised land of the Walley World theme park in California. Not a single thing goes right on the family’s doomed journey, which is held together only by Clark’s manic insistence on family togetherness. Clark’s flirtations with a mystery blonde, played by Christie Brinkley, the family’s expired aunt strapped to the top of their station wagon, Randy Quaid’s redneck Cousin Eddie, and Clark holding a poor Walley World security guard (played by John Candy) at BB gunpoint, are just some of the movie’s iconic contributions to film comedy. Plus, Lindsey Buckingham’s theme song “Holiday Road” is essential for any road-trip playlist.
Easy Rider (1969)
The movie that in many ways personifies the romantic mystery of the American road trip is also a bit of a nightmare, and anyone planning to re-create the journey from Easy Rider probably hasn’t seen the movie recently. The bikers, played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper (who also directed), are headed from Los Angeles to New Orleans with money from a drug deal, and their trip isn’t the freewheeling odyssey that people may imagine from the movie’s pop-culture reputation. Instead, it’s a look at the darkness just off the beaten path, with the main characters bullied and mistreated just as often as they’re embraced and celebrated. There’s peace and love on the road, but also violence and even death, and taking a trip (physically or spiritually) can mean encountering some of both. Best to come prepared.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
The combination of the brilliant imagination of director Tim Burton (in his feature debut) and the unique character created by Paul Reubens launched a pop-culture sensation. Pee-Wee Herman has become an instantly recognizable figure, with his signature gray plaid suit, red bow tie, and piercing laugh, and in Big Adventure he takes a trip across the U.S. in search of his stolen bicycle. The mix of childlike naivete and demented surrealism came to define Pee-Wee, and Burton and Reubens send the character on a tour of oddball America, from a biker bar where Pee-Wee dances on the tables to “Tequila,” to the memorable roadside dinosaur statues in California, to the Alamo, where Pee-Wee is determined to find the nonexistent basement. Pee-Wee’s wide-eyed (if misguided) sense of wonder is just the right attitude for road-trip exploration.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
Sometimes a road trip is the only option to get where you’re going, even if it’s not your preferred mode of travel. That’s the case in John Hughes’ classic comedy of discomfort, starring Steve Martin and John Candy as a mismatched pair of travelers who are stuck with each other, whether they like it or not. With flights grounded due to inclement weather, Martin’s high-strung businessman Neal has to team up with Candy’s gregarious salesman Del to get from New York to Chicago, via the various means of transportation in the title. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in a small enclosed space with someone you can’t stand, but Martin and Candy make Neal and Del’s antagonism hilarious to watch, and Hughes adds heart to the adversarial comedy, proving that the stress of the road really can be the best circumstance for making friends.
Thelma & Louise (1991)
Sure, Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) are on the run from the law after Louise shoots a man who was attempting to rape Thelma, but they get to have a surprising amount of fun along the way. Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Callie Khouri create a raucous good time for the two women as they give the middle finger to the patriarchy, traveling along back roads to seedy motels and roadside stops, picking up a hot young drifter (Brad Pitt in his first major film role) and barely staying ahead of the cops (at least until the iconic ending’s mix of tragedy and triumph). It’s better to avoid violence on your road trip if possible, but everyone should have a travel companion as loyal and supportive as Thelma and Louise are to each other.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Not every family road trip is a vacation. The Griswolds have nothing on the Hoovers, who are barely holding themselves together when they decide to drive their vintage Volkswagen van from New Mexico to California so that little Olive (Abigail Breslin, nominated for an Oscar at age 10) can compete in a dubious-sounding beauty pageant. Like the Griswolds, they somehow end up chauffeuring the dead body of a relative and they end the trip by forcibly hijacking a beloved attraction (in this case, the Little Miss Sunshine pageant). But the deeply troubled family members also come to terms with many of their personal troubles during the trip, realizing that they have more binding them together than driving them apart. Sometimes it takes leaving home to appreciate what you already have.
The Straight Story (1999)
The road is the most accessible way to travel, the great equalizer, and even someone with failing eyesight and worn-out knees can still get where they need to go by taking to the road. That’s just what Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) does in David Lynch’s improbably heartwarming drama, inspired by a true story. His health problems keep him from getting a driver’s license, but Alvin can still hook up a trailer to his riding mower and take the (very slow) journey from Iowa to Wisconsin. Determined to do things on his own, Alvin is stubborn and self-reliant, the archetype of the American pioneer, but he’s also compassionate, dedicated to traveling that long distance, at five miles per hour, so he can see his brother who has recently suffered a stroke. Alvin’s story is indeed straightforward, but it’s also quietly affecting, a journey of the soul as well as the road.
Alexander Payne’s treatise on proper wine drinking actually spawned real-life tours of California’s Santa Ynez Valley, but it’s not exactly a portrait of healthy drinking habits. Paul Giamatti broke out as a leading man with his performance as Miles, a lonely, insecure, failed writer who uses his snooty love of wine as cover for a serious alcohol dependence, and Thomas Haden Church showed new depths as Jack, the equally insecure has-been actor who joins his buddy for a one-week ride through wine country before Jack’s wedding. The road trip offers a chance for old resentments to bubble over, but it also allows the two men to confront their emotional issues and push past their years of denial (at least a little bit). It’s also bitterly funny, from Miles’ now-famous rants against Merlot to bits of awkward physical comedy. A week on the road together can strain a friendship, but it can also give that friendship new life.
Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)
A road trip is a perfect place for a sexual awakening, away from the constraints of daily life and the judgmental eyes of family. That’s exactly what happens for friends Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) in filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron’s breakout film. The two teenagers convince older woman Luisa (Maribel Verdu) to join them on a road trip through the back roads of Mexico to reach a beautiful beach that may only exist in their imaginations. Both teens lust after Luisa, and they may just lust after each other, too. The freedom to explore is one of the greatest allures of the road, and Cuaron captures that feeling of possibility, sexual and geographic, that comes from being young and heading toward new horizons.